Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Politics of Constitutional Amendments: Lessons from Minnesota's History

All indications are there will be at least one if not multiple state constitutional amendments on the 2012 ballot for Minnesotans to consider. Possibilities include a ban on same-sex marriage, photo identification for voting, a requirement for a 60% legislative vote to raise taxes, and perhaps others.

Supporters of these proposals contend the public has a right to vote on them, critics respond no; asserting that resorting to amending the Minnesota Constitution is unprecedented and inappropriate. Who is right? There may be no definitive answer, yet state history reveals 150 plus years of amendments, yielding interesting conclusions about constitutional politics.

Since ratification of the Minnesota Constitution in 1858, there have been 211 constitutional amendments proposed to the voters, with 119 adopted. Until 1898, constitutional amendments required a majority of both houses in the legislature to propose them to the voters, with a simple majority of those voting on the amendments to approve them.

In 1898 the amending process was changed, thereafter requiring a qualified majority of all who voted in a specific election to vote in favor the amendment. Voting in the election but not voting on the amendment counted as a no vote. Amending the Constitution was made more difficult because critics claimed special interests and groups were using the process to further their politics.

Over time, interesting patterns have developed regarding when amendments have been offered and adopted.

Era Dates Proposed Adopted Percentage Adopted
Nineteenth Century 1858-1898 66 48 73%
Progressive Era 1900-1918 45 10 22%
1920s 1920-1928 15 7 47%
Depression and WW II 1930-1944 20 8 40%
Total 1958-2010 211 119 56%


During the 19th century, 73% of the 66 proposed amendments were adopted. After changes in the amendment process, the Progressive Era—a period supposedly notable for significant social and economic reform in the Minnesota and across the country, only 10 of 45 or 22% of the amendments were adopted. Many amendments were offered during this time but few were accepted by the voters. Conversely, since WWII, and especially since the Constitution was reorganized in 1974, nearly 70% of all proposed amendments were adopted.

Constitutional amendments come in bunches. Many times in Minnesota history three, four, or more amendments have been on the ballot at the same time. The record is 1914, 11 amendments proposed, one adopted. Because of frequent amending, no definitive pattern emerges regarding whether they encouraged turnout, but there is no doubt than in their day proposals to let women vote or authorize gambling drove excitement and turnout. Moreover, in years when more than one amendment appeared on the ballot, usually one dominated the public’s attention, sometimes damaging the prospects of the other amendments from passing.

Looking at the types of amendments proposed, they fall into four groups. There are structural amendments addressing the organization of government, such as the length of the legislative session, giving the governor the veto, or regulating the size of the judiciary. Financial amendments include authorizing the state to impose taxes, bond, give special bonuses to military veterans, or otherwise to spend money. Rights amendments deal with matters of individual rights, such as franchise and jury trials. Finally, regulatory amendments dealt with various aspects of regulating private corporations, such as the liability of its officers.

Of the 211 amendments proposed, they can be classified as follows:

Type Proposed Adopted Adopted Percentage
Structure of government 97 51 53%
Finance (taxes, bonding) 82 50 61%
Individual rights 17 12 71%
Regulatory (corporations) 15 6 40%
Total 211 119 56%


What do we learn about the content of the amendments proposed and passed? Clearly many addressed contentious issues of the time. No, they did not address abortion or marriage and surprisingly none sought to ban alcohol sales. These are today’s hot button issues, or ones that we might consider contentious. But controversial is relative to the times, and amendments dealing with regulation of railroads during the robber baron era, or giving women or Blacks the right to vote were the headlines of the day. Resorting to constitutional amendments as a populist political strategy has been a part of Minnesota politics from the beginning.

But looking at the content of the amendments adopted, some interesting patterns emerge. Among the 12 adopted Amendments addressing individual rights, five of them expanded voting rights. In the entire history of the state only one constitutional amendment, in 1896, restricted voting rights. Here it limited the practice in place until then that allowed aliens or non-citizens to vote in Minnesota. This practice encouraged and welcomed Scandinavians to Minnesota.

Three other amendments also limited rights, addressing issues surrounding use of juries in civil and misdemeanors. The message is clear—amendments to the Constitution have generally expanded rights, especially voting, and not contracted them.

Second, among the 50 adopted amendments dealing with finance, 17 authorized new taxes, bonding authority, or spending, and only six restricted or made it more difficult for public spending. Of those six, four in the nineteenth century restricted the ability to use public money to help the railroads (again seeking to limit the power of the robber barons), one in the nineteenth century barred the spending of public money for religious schools (Minnesota’s Blaine Amendment, similar to those adopted in many other states about the same time), and then one amendment during the Depression prohibited the taxing of personal property and farm equipment. Minnesota’s history thus demonstrates more a pattern of enabling spending to build schools and undertake public projects than to restrict it.

Votes and not history will decide whether amendments on the ballot in 2012 will pass. Yet the current amendments directed toward restricting rights, voting, and public financing seem out of sync with Minnesota’s history. But for good or bad, resorting to the amendment process is a part of Minnesota history to address politically charged issues of the day.

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